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Bridging the Gaps: A Conversation with Young Artists of America’s Rolando Sanz

Through the Young Artists of America program, brothers Rolando and Kristofer Sanz have worked to bring a new level of musical exposure to students in the Bethesda, Maryland area. Since 2011, they have produced musical theatre and opera combination concerts featuring all-student orchestras and student performers with the occasional adult singer. I recently learned more about the program from Rolando Sanz himself and how his initial one-off concert has spawned a massive effort to expose young people to music and push both genres, opera and musical theatre, forward.

Tell me about how you first came to opera and what inspired you to become a singer?
I first came to opera when I was 11 and my father took me to an audition for the Washington Opera’s children’s chorus. I was always singing as a child and I think my father was looking for some structure for his precocious kid. I remember distinctly not wanting to go because opera was all about people singing loud and being melodramatic. But as soon as I stepped foot on that stage, I was hooked! I would stand off stage left and just marvel at those singers making gorgeous sounds along with the sound of the orchestra. My hope was that one day my voice might lend itself towards this music, and I am very fortunate that it has.

Describe the process it requires to build a program with as wide a reach as Young Artists of America.
Young Artists of America began with a single concert back in 2011. The performance featured a full student orchestra and student vocalists along with a few adult guest artists performing excerpts from opera and musical theatre, including La bohéme, Into the Woods and La traviata . It was a huge success! Little did we know that we had created a monster. The phone calls started coming in as to when the next concert would be, and YAA was born. We have definitely learned a lot about how to build a non-profit organization from the ground up, and now 4 years in, we are amazed at how the organization has quickly grown to become the premier training program for instrumentalists and vocalists in the region. We believe strongly that high quality trumps everything else, and if we are able to provide these unique musical experiences to our young people, that the organization will continue to be successful and to inspire our students.

Also, what is it like to build such a program with a family member? Does this present any challenges?
It has been an absolute joy to build this program with my brother, Kristofer Sanz. He is an amazingly talented conductor, also acting as Music Director of the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras. To be perfectly honest, there is really very little disagreement between us regarding YAA, because neither of us has any personal ego invested in the organization. We are very similar in that everything that we do is for the kids and not about ourselves, so when the goal of everyone involved is to just inspire young musicians to excel, everything falls into place quite naturally. We also each have very clearly defined roles and expertise, Kristofer on the orchestral side and myself on the vocal side. If anything, it’s a pleasure to get a chance to sit in his rehearsals and learn from him all about the world of instrumental education.

Rolando and Kristofer Sanz

YAA produces a lot of musical-theatre & opera combined events. What’s your reasoning behind this?
This combination of musical theatre and opera started at our inaugural concert presenting a combination of the two genres to our students and audiences. We found that the storytelling in both genres are really quite complimentary for both the musicians and the listener. That concept morphed into trying to present a story driven concert combining the two art forms. We began to seek out scores and stories that would work together dramatically but also feature our incredibly talented student instrumentalists and vocalists.

Our first foray into this world was combining the scores of Madama Butterfly and the musical Miss Saigon in 2013, excerpting music from both scores to tell the story that they share from beginning to end. The production featured a symphonic orchestra of 92 musicians and a cast of 40 students and the guest opera singers to sing the roles of Butterfly, Pinkerton and Sharpless. It was a grand experiment really to see if this new kind of musical genre would 1) actually work theatrically and 2) be interesting to an audience mostly unfamiliar with opera. The performance drew an audience of over 1,250 at The Music Center at Strathmore and I never had heard an ovation at the end of a performance like I heard that day. Clearly, we were on to something!

This past March, we produced our second opera/musical theatre production with West Side Story + Roméo et Juliette, combining the timeless Bernstein and Gounod scores. The orchestra, student singers, guest artists and guest dancers blew everyone away! Putting together a unique production like this in a major concert hall with over 130 students is a tremendous undertaking for a small organization like Young Artists of America. Each production takes more than year to put together, but it is some of the most gratifying work that I do and I am honored to be able to give back to my community and to pass on some of the wisdom that I learn in my professional life as an opera singer.

In the same vein, as somebody who produces both opera and musical theater concurrently, what is your opinion on the role of musical theatre in the opera house. Consider Chicago Lyric Opera’s current production of Carousel, for example. Is there a place for musical theatre?
I think that the trend of major opera houses producing large scale musical theatre is brilliant! I had the opportunity to see the Chicago Lyric production of Carousel while I was nearby in Milwaukee singing Nemorino in L’elisir d’Amore with Florentine Opera. It was a tremendous undertaking for even a large company like the Lyric.

While we have wonderful American operas in the repertoire, we have to remember that musical theatre is a purely American art form that was created here as a direct offshoot of European opera and operetta. It only makes sense that some of these works are finding their place again in the opera house. As a matter of fact, because of the large original orchestrations of some of these classic works like Show Boat and Oklahoma, the opera house might be the only place that is able to present these works in their original musical glory without sacrificing musicians or the scenic grandeur that they deserve. I also think that the opera companies are being very smart casting legit musical theatre singers in the works and not trying to make them into operas. I know many singers who have taken part in some of these productions, and they are sometimes moved to tears at the opportunity to sing with a full sized Rodgers and Hammerstein sized orchestra and hearing the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations. Those sounds are what I think got many of us into singing, and I could not be happier that those musicals continue to inspire on the country’s great stages.

We are honored at YAA to be doing the same kind of work on a smaller stage to inspire our kids to still demand these lush orchestrations and to seek out the works of the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe. Otherwise, we might have nothing but canned music in our future!

Why is it important to have programs like Young Artists of America? How does this type of program factor into the sustainability of classical-vocal music?

High quality programs like Young Artists of America are sometimes the difference in inspiring young artists to potentially move from music being just a hobby to dedicating their lives to art. But more than that, we always say that the main purpose of Young Artists of America is really to create the audiences of tomorrow. I call musical theatre the gateway drug to opera. I think if you ask any professional opera singer of my generation what got them into opera, the answer will quite often be: Les Misérables or West Side Story. Why is that? Because these tales are epic, usually scored for full orchestra and they inspire the imagination of a young budding musician. It is no coincidence that many of the most popular musicals like The Phantom of the Opera or Carousel, are operatic in nature, and exposing our young people to these works in their original fully-orchestrated versions is our duty both as educators and fans of the art form.

On a personal level, one of the main reasons that I founded Young Artists of America is because there was nothing like this when I was a kid coming up. Sure, there were plenty of children’s choruses to perform with, and many schools produce a musical. But I felt very alone in my love for classical vocal music and was inspired by the classic musicals with orchestra. In the same vein, two of our board members are former child instrumentalists who loved musical theatre and opera, but never had an outlet as kids to pursue these interests. With YAA, we have created a strong community of vocalists and instrumentalists who comingle and share musical ideas, as well as a network of parents who are also learning the same lessons we are instilling in our students. And honestly, you never know what these kids will be inspired to turn into. For example, we have one graduating senior this year who came in as a “Broadway baby” and is leaving us as a classical voice major at Boston Conservatory (with a $25,000 a year scholarship, as a soprano by the way!)

What do you hope YAA students leave with from the program?
We will have been successful if students graduate from our program feeling like they have been part of a grand production that can move people and bring beauty to the world. We also want them to leave inspired by the guest mentors that we bring in to work with them, including most recently: Jason Robert Brown and Jeanine Tesori from Broadway; Anthony McGill, principal clarinet from the New York Philharmonic as well as many regional actors, singers and educators.

Many of our students have gone on to study in major university programs including NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Michigan, Penn State, Northwestern, Manhattan School of Music, and Baldwin Wallace. We know that these students are entering these programs with a heightened sense of what is possible musically and theatrically and that they will go on to change the world of opera and musical theatre. We also have many students that do not go on to study music, but for whom music will always be a part of their adult lives. Our hope is that by exposing young instrumentalists to vocal music and singers to symphonic music, as adults, they will cross pollinate each other’s art forms and we’ll actually have instrumentalists buying tickets to the opera and not just the symphony, and vice versa. By exposing our students to works ranging from Sondheim to Puccini, we know we are opening their eyes to an entire new world of repertoire that will hopefully whet their appetites to be consumers of the art forms as adults.

On a more personal note, what is your preferred genre of music? Would you listen to opera in your free time?
Personally, I usually listen to opera only when I am studying and preparing a role. While opera is the center of my life and I adore it, opera is my job. So in my free time, I am not listening to much Verdi. I compare it to professional chefs who are cooking in their restaurants all day and sometimes just want to come home and order Chinese take-out! Some people can work productively with classical music on in the background. I am not that guy! Classical music turns my brain on and I immediately find myself analyzing the chord progressions of Bach or the vocal timbre of a singer. My down time music: salsa and merengue (my parents are both Cuban so this is the soundtrack of my life.)

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